Crisis pregnancy centers in Baltimore must display signs stating they do not provide abortions or birth-control referrals under a measure approved by the City Council Monday night and thought to be the first of its kind in the nation.
Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who was lead sponsor of the initiative, called the measure a victory for women's well-being. She cited a study by an advocacy group indicating that women have been misled at pregnancy centers that provide counseling, clothing and food for expectant mothers - but not abortions.
"It's a step towards making sure that women have the information they need to make the right decision for their health and their future," Rawlings-Blake said.
But abortion opponents say the bill unfairly targets centers that they say provide accurate information and much-needed assistance to poor women.
"The thing that's most disappointing about it is not the particular signs that are put up or the particular bill itself, but the message that it sends," said Maryland Right to Life legislative director Jeffrey D. Meister.
"This is the first time in the United States that any elected body has chosen to vote to condemn pregnancy centers. Baltimore City has just said, 'We recognize you do great work, but politically we're going to regulate you anyway.' "
Similar measures have failed in the legislature in several states, including Oregon and Texas, Meister said. A similar bill is being considered by the Montgomery County Council.
The bill, which passed the City Council on a 12-3 vote, awaits a decision by Mayor Sheila Dixon, who could either sign or veto the measure, or allow it to become law without her signature. A supporter of abortion rights, Dixon has not indicated whether she backs the plan.
Under the initiative, which would affect four centers in the city, counseling centers would be required to post signs in English and Spanish explaining that they do not "provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services." If inspectors note that the signs are not visible, the center will be given 10 days to post a notice before incurring a $150 daily fine.
"At the very least now, these centers will have to put a sign up that lets women know that information about birth control and abortion won't be found within those doors," said Keiren Havens, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which has been an advocate of the bill.
The head of two of the pregnancy centers that would be affected by the bill said that she was disturbed by the implications of the legislation.
"The passage of this piece of legislation may serve as serious encouragement to those who would like to see our organizations saddled with more laws and restrictions," said Carol A. Clews, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit anti-abortion organization that receives donations from religious groups and has operated in the city for 30 years.
The crisis centers are "very upfront about the services that we provide and the services we don't provide," Clews said.
Most of the clients are women who have already decided to continue their pregnancies but are seeking help with utility bills or job referrals or who need maternity clothes and prenatal vitamins, she said.
Council members who voted against the bill asked why similar demands were not placed on abortion clinics.
"It should not just apply to these four centers," said Councilman James B. Kraft, who tried unsuccessfully last week to broaden the scope of the bill. "But if you hold out yourself as a facility that gives advice to a young woman who finds herself pregnant - whether she wants abortion, comprehensive birth control, prenatal care, postnatal care - there should be a sign saying we do not provide advice on this one option."
Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, who joined Kraft and Councilwoman Agnes Welch in opposing the bill, said he visited a pregnancy center in his district and did not see evidence that they mislead women.
"I'm a firm believer that what's good for the goose is good for the gander," said Young, who supports abortion only in rape cases.
"If they're going to ask the pregnancy centers to post a notice, they should ask Planned Parenthood, too.